David Huzzard: Inside the Nats’ offensive struggles

There is no possible way to make it sound good that the Nationals’ offense has scored only 3.41 runs a game and OPS’d a measly .654. In most offensive categories, they are better than only the Marlins. The Nats have faced a lot of good pitchers and good teams early in the season, and that has something to do with the poor offense, but that doesn’t make it this dreadful.

In April, the issue was that the Nationals got no offense from the third and first base positions as they put up an OPS of .572 and .456, respectively. As those two positions have come around in May, left field and right field have fallen to an OPS of .439 and .353, respectively. It is one thing to lack offense at a defensive position such as second, but it is another thing entirely to be getting no offense from an offensive position.

The reason behind this is partly injuries, but it is also the poor play of the bench. In 2012, Davey Johnson was able to manipulate his bench in order to give them a constant advantage at the plate. In 2012, Roger Bernadina came to the plate 261 times and 233 of those were against right-handers. Likewise, Tyler Moore came to the plate 171 times and 101 of those plate appearances were against left-handers. With both Harper and Werth dealing with injuries, Bernadina and Moore have been forced into action in plate appearances in which they do not have the platoon advantage. Especially for Moore, who has 35 plate appearances versus right-handers and 32 against left-handers.

The underperformance of the Nats offense is the biggest story to date in 2013, and while there are reasons behind it, the Nationals are going to have to find a solution before “it’s still early” becomes “too late.” The first answer most fans turn to is a trade, but it is too early in the season for that. Sure players like Chris Nelson have already played on three teams, but there is a reason no team he has gone to has wanted to keep him for long - and career .725 OPS bench bats aren’t going to revitalize an offense.

Nelson and other waived players are a special case right now. Last season, the first major in-season trade didn’t happen until July 4, when Carlos Lee was traded to the Marlins, and that was thought to be a move of desperation on the Marlins’ part. The bigger trades, like Zack Greinke to the Angles, don’t happen until right before or right at the July 31 trade deadline. The Greinke deal happened on July 27. If there is a deadline in Major League Baseball, the parties involved will do as much work as possible to insure they do as little as possible until that deadline. And aside from all that, there are six teams currently leading their divisions and 13 others within five games of a division lead. It is too early for teams to have made a decision whether to buy or sell.

Mentioning trading is great, but as of now, the Nats’ biggest offensive problems are the underperformance of the corner positions, and Adam LaRoche, Ryan Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper aren’t going to be replaced. Ian Desmond, Denard Span and Kurt Suzuki are all doing their jobs at the plate. That only leaves second base and there are very few impact offensive second basemen, and there is a case to be made that none of Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia, Brandon Phillips, Ian Kinsler, Matt Carpenter or Chase Utley are even on the table to be discussed. While second base isn’t an offensive position, teams with impact offensive bats at second are most of the time contenders.

With Anthony Rendon tearing the cover off the ball at Double-A to the tune of a 1.118 OPS, and the complete lack of offensive ability of either Danny Espinosa or SteveLombardozzi, the Nats’ second base situation is reaching a crisis point. Rendon has played all of five games at second base in the minors and never on consecutive days, but major league second basemen such as Daniel Murphy, Neil Walker and Carpenter are converted third basemen, and their experience ranges from the zero minor league plate appearances of Carpenter to the 21 of Walker. There is precedent that a minor league third baseman can become a major league second baseman with limited minor league reps. Replacing an underperforming position with a question mark isn’t going to be as much of a fix as getting all corner players healthy and productive at the same time. The real key to offense is to get production out of expected places and then everything else will be a bonus.

David Huzzard blogs about the Nationals for Citizens of Natstown, and offers his viewpoints as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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